February Miscellany!

I am clearing the decks in advance of Reading Ireland Month, which launches on Wednesday and in advance of 746 Books turning to all things Irish, here are my cultural highlights from February.

Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton

Despite being the last book I purchased before I started by 746 Books challenge back in 2013, I have never got round to reading Catton’s Booker-winning novel The Luminaries. After reading Birnam Wood, I plan to read everything of hers that I can get my hands on.

Birnam Wood tells the story of a radical gardening collective of the same name, and the events that ensue when they encounter an American billionaire Robert Lemoine. Lemoine has befriended a New Zealand executive called Owen Darvish and is planning to buy his farm on the edge of a national park. As far as Darvish is concerned, Lemoine is building a ‘doom-steading’ bunker; however, Lemoine is actually planning to illegally mine the land for rare earth minerals, ensuring his position as the world’s wealthiest man. A freak accident changes the lives of Darvish, Lemoine and the members of the collective immeasurably and leads to a chain of events, which will culminate in a disaster of Shakespearean proportions.

 Written in short sections, each from the viewpoint of different characters and moving back and forth across short spaces of time, the structure of the novel is delightfully complex, leaving gaps in the readers knowledge which build tension and suspense.  It’s a thrilling blend of satire, eco-thriller and page turner which addresses many of today’s hottest topics: the pillaging of late capitalism, the perils inherent in the growing use of technology, surveillance and social media and the growing threat of environmental collapse.

The novel pulls no punches when exploring who might be to blame for our modern ills, but avoids being didactic, instead offering up a Shakespearean influenced, page-turning thriller that is addictively entertaining and will keep you guessing until the final paragraph. 

Kick the Latch by Kathryn Scanlan

I had seen Northern Ireland novelist Wendy Erskine sing the praises of this novel on Twitter and was intrigued. A book based on the life of a racehorse trainer wouldn’t be my first choice, but I loved this spare, emotive novel, which is about racehorses but is also about the fundamentals of life.

Based on transcribed interviews with Sonia, a horse trainer, Kick the Latch vividly captures the arc of one woman’s life at the racetrack – from her childhood love of horses to her adult life working at the track and on into middle age. Taking the form of short reflections and vignettes that range in length from three pages to a sentence, Scanlon captures a life, a hard life, worked in the service of beloved animals. The narrative voice vividly depicts the insular, feverish world of the racetrack, its rituals, its violence and its joys, capturing the particular language of the racetrack world and telling the difficult stories with the same blunt honesty as the good.

This novel is unsentimental, economical and utterly humane and I cannot recommend it highly enough.


I always knew Cate Blanchett was a great actor, but her turn as the imperious conductor Lydia Tár is a tour-de-force.

Lydia Tár is the fictional principal conductor of a major German orchestra, who is passionate, demanding and tyrannical. She travels the world, taking part in panel discussions (as depicted by the bravura opening scene), running a scholarship programme for female conductors and holding masterclasses at Juilliard. She is married to her first violinist (Nina Hoss) and together they have a daughter. As her memoir is about to be published, things start to go wrong for Lydia.  Rumours start to circulate about her behaviour toward her mentees on her scholarship programme and questions are raised about the suicide of one such woman. Her long-term assistant is beginning to feel taken advantage of and a young visiting cellist has caught her eye. When a masterclass at Juilliard turns sour and Lydia’s actions are caught on mobile phone, her life starts to close in, threatening everything that she has built.  

Todd Field uses the subtle tropes of the horror genre to explore the unravelling of a compulsive mind and the hubris that can end a career. Blanchett is stunning in the title role, completely immersed and believable, allowing some vulnerability to creep into her often-monstrous portrayal. A lot has been said about the ending, with many finding it melodramatic, but I thought it was perfect. Tár has invented her entire personality through conducting, and when all else crumbles, that is what is left. An Oscar must surely be assured.


I’m a sucker for a movie with Tim Roth and really enjoyed Sundown, which probably works best if you go into it knowing as little as possible about the plot.

Neil and Alice Bennett, the heart of a wealthy family who have made their fortune from meat processing, are on holiday with two younger members of the family in Acapulco. When a call comes to say that his mother has passed away and the family must cut their holiday short, Neil pretends to lose his passport, sends everyone else home without him – promising to follow as soon as he can – and then proceeds to continue his holiday. He checks into a smaller hotel, spends his days drinking beer by the beach and starts a relationship with a local shop owner, living the dream. Two weeks later, funeral done and dusted, Alice returns to confront Neil about his lies and a film, which has had little action up until this point, kicks into gear.

To say any more about the plot of Sundown would be to spoil it. Why is Neil slumming it in Mexico and turning his back on the family fortune? Why is he so blasé when he is witness to a brutal gangland murder right next to him on the beach? Director Michael Franco eventually provides the answer, but the most enjoyable part of this movie is watching Tim Roth schlep around Acapulco in his flip-flops, never happier than when he is sipping his beer on a plastic chair by the shore.

The Menu

If I am a sucker for a Tim Roth movie, then I’m also a sucker for one featuring Ralph Fiennes, particularly one where he is having as much fun as he seems to be in The Menu. Anya Taylor-Joy and Nicholas Hoult play a young couple who have been invited, along with other handpicked guests to a remote island to eat at the exclusive restaurant of world-renowned Chef Slowick, played with a delicious deadpan delivery by Ralph Fiennes. Alongside them is a food critic, some wealthy tech bros, a Hollywood actor and a high-profile executive. As Chef Slowick serves his lavish menu, his diners are in for some horrifying surprises.

The Menu is a darkly comic horror film that is as far from subtle as it gets. In the vein of the recent Triangle of Sadness, it skewers the lives and pretensions of the rich and gives them their just desserts – literally.  Fiennes is fantastic as the celeb-chef from hell, he is so suited to this kind of role, but he is ably supported by Hong Chau as Elsa, his trusted and devoted maître d and Anya Taylor-Joy as Margot, who is not as susceptible as the rest of Slowick’s guests.

The Menu is incredibly gruesome but also incredibly funny and you’ll never look at a s’more in the same way again.

Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau has long been a favourite of mine since I saw him live at the Belfast International Arts Festival almost 20 years ago. He has just released an album of piano covers of songs by The Beatles – Your Mother Should Know: Brad Mehldau Plays The Beatles – and it is just wonderful. His cover version of ‘I Am the Walrus’ us a particular stand out.

Monthly Miscellany

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

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